Young Dangerous Liaisons
Cruel Intentions may just be my favorite teen flick of all time, although (or maybe because) the leads don't really act anything like teenagers. Billed as an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the new movie plays more like a riff on Stephen Frears' 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, though Cruel Intentions is set in contemporary New York rather than Pre-Revolution France. Writer/director Roger Kumble's stylized dialogue echoes Christopher Hampton's translation line for line in places. It's a gutsy move to pay homage to such a recent adaptation, but it pays off: if it weren't made obvious that we were watching a period piece of sorts, the theatrical behavior of the protagonists might seem ludicrous.
Instead, although they're not precisely believable, the characters come across with the grandeur of tragedy, as well as the humor of youthful spontaneity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar plays (Kathryn) Merteuil - the character played by Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, Jeanne Moreau in Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Annette Bening in Milos Forman's Valmont. Like those three very gifted actresses, Gellar turns in a dazzling performance which surprised me even considering how talented I have always found her.
By turns witty and vicious, Kathryn slinks around in expensive lingerie, teaches a would-be-protegee how to French kiss, and snaps out insults with dizzying velocity. She chews scenery with relish - in this case she also chomps on cherries, champagne, and co-star Ryan Philippe - but that's Merteuil, who's supposed to devour every scene she's in. I loved Gellar in this role, which is saying a lot considering that Close's performance in Frears' film is probably my favorite performance by an actress in the 1980s. Gellar does a particularly good job with the updated version of Merteuil's frustrated tirade about how men can get away with almost anything in their intimate behavior, but a woman who likes sex is labeled a slut unless she puts on a Marcia Brady facade. It's one of the few scenes in which Kathryn's being sincere, and Gellar plays the underlying rage and pain with great finesse.
By now you've probably figured out that I'm a fan of Choderlos de Laclos' novel upon which all four of the above-mentioned films are based. One of the wonderful things about Les Liaisons Dangereuses is that it seems not to have aged at all despite being more than 200 years old. It was possible for Vadim to set it in the decadent 1960s and for Frears to draw parallels with America in the prosperous Reagan years; Kumble instead chooses the microcosm of affluent adolescent society.
The teen film genre is usually rife with sex and drug problems, only this time the problem isn't that the kids take risks to escape from their pain or to get the attention of adults. The sex and drugs in Cruel Intentions barely scratch the surface of the frightening amorality of protagonists whose parents are either absent or so completely removed from the realities of their world that they might as well be living in different countries.
The central character of Kumble's film is Valmont, here called Sebastian by his intimates. He's the man whose sexuality is central to the desires of all three female protagonists, though ultimately he is destroyed by his inability to control it - and them. Virtually every portrayal of Valmont gives him a foppish side, with what seems to be an almost stereotypically feminine obsession with appearance. In Cruel Intentions, Valmont's one true friend (Joshua Jackson from Dawson's Creek) is gay and he's not afraid to dish about guys, nor to look pretty as a New Kids on the Block pinup.
The dialogue Sebastian exchanges with stepsister Kathryn is a riot: when he asks about her gold-digging whore of a mother, she responds by inquiring about his impotent dolt of a father, who remains offscreen for the entire film. Instead the two are intimates at prep school, where Valmont is determined to seduce the virginal daughter of the new headmaster. Kathryn, however, wants him to destroy the reputation of the new love interest of her ex-boyfriend, who describes Kathryn as an anorexic bitch. "Be her Captain Picard, Valmont...boldly go where no man has gone before," she implores, offering herself as a prize if he can deflower his trophy. The pair have delicious sexual chemistry made kinky by their incestuous tie; her rubbing all over him is exquisitely erotic, so when she leaps off with a breezy, "Down, boy," the audience is left as frustrated as her stepbrother. Gellar and Philippe worked together in I Know What You Did Last Summer and pull off the switch between good friends and would-be lovers with aplomb.
Ryan Philippe often seems to be deliberately echoing the mannerisms of John Malkovich's Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons...which isn't always successful as Philippe is so much younger, hence hard to take seriously as a man of the world. Sebastian's initial overtures to good girl Annette (who has none of the ethereal charm of Michelle Pfeiffer's Madame de Tourvel in this adaptation) come across as anything but charming. He does offer her a nice view of his naked butt, but in general he seems just as selfish and crass as his reputation holds, so her attraction to him is mystifying unless we are expected to believe that she was a bad girl in training all along.
Valmont does have some delicious lines - "E-mail is for geeks and pedophiles" was one of my favorites. And in the end, when he has driven away his true love and been scorned by his dark soulmate, Philippe comes into his own and gives a moving show of the character's confusion and grief which reminded me of some of Leonardo DiCaprio's best performances.
Much as I admired Gellar's work, my favorite character was probably Cecile, the geeky virgin whose mother enlists Kathryn as a mentor to usher her daughter to popularity. Selma Blair (made up to resemble Monica Lewinsky) is terrific as a young woman with no sense of who she is or wants to be. She's a giddy romantic unaware of her sexual potential until given explicit lessons by Kathryn and Sebastian, turning quite believably into a horny teenager who's just as awkward and clumsy as before she discovered the joys of the Big O. She also has nice chemistry with Ronald - the Danceny character played by Keanu Reeves in Frears' film - though his character is a throwaway, treated with racist cruelty by the protagonists without giving a compelling reason why he would stick around such people. ("I took you in off the street," insists Cecile's mother. "I live at 59th and Park!" he exclaims.)
There are some wonderful cameos by adults - Louise Fletcher as Sebastian's clueless Aunt Helen, Christine Baranski as Cecile's horror of a mother, and Swoosie Kurtz (who played Madame de Volanges in Dangerous Liaisons) as Sebastian's high-society therapist. The cinematography isn't particularly remarkable, though the lighting is lovely in a scene at an indoor pool and again in Kathryn's bedroom when Valmont discovers Ronald hiding in the drawer under her bed. The design is magnificent as well: expensive furnishings and clothes, helicopter shots of New York looking sleek and gleaming...the opening, Valmont driving alone on a highway through a cemetery, was the most interesting visual moment in the film.
Gellar fans will love this movie, Les Liaisons Dangereuses fans should like this movie unless they're purists. Teen flick fans may love this movie or may be turned off by the nastiness of the subject matter. On the other hand, the bad guys are punished more soundly in this film than they were in the novel, and two women who were punished for their sexual sins are spared judgement in Cruel Intentions. I thought it was delicious.